Cody Keenan, President Obama's incoming chief speechwriter, is getting some well deserved attention this week as tonight's State of the Union is his first gig as top pen in the president's proverbial desk. Who helps the president write his speech is a big deal, especially in the modern communications age. But even as the president's speechwriters have come out from behind the curtain, there remain some misconceptions about the role they play and how a speech like the State of the Union gets produced.
"There's a myth of the White House speechwriter that somehow or another we're the ones who go into a room and come out with this fully formed text," former Clinton chief speechwriter Don Baer said at a Bipartisan Policy Center panel this morning on how these speeches get written. "It's kind of the Ted Sorensen-ian kind of myth." Of course in the case of Sorensen, President Kennedy's chief domestic aide and speechwriter, it wasn't a myth. That was when the White House staff was much smaller and less specialized. As I detail in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, Ted could huddle up with Kennedy and then go off and write a major speech because of his role as JFK's closest aide—there was much less of a clearance process.
That was then. In the last 30 or so years, as the executive branch bureaucracy has grown, so too has the number of people involved in the speechwriting process, especially on a major speech like the State of the Union address. In turn that means the job of someone like Keenan and the other writers on his staff are more than presidential collaborators. They also need to be skilled bureaucratic infighters.
Writing a State of the Union address, Baer said, it's the "largest most massive group process that you've ever engaged in." Tonight's speech is, he said, "both a mission statement and a setting out an agenda for an entire presidency and an entire government at least for the year ahead and sometimes more than that," so there's a lot of ground to cover. It's the president's opportunity not only to make his case to the nation but to outline a path for a sometimes intransigent bureaucracy to follow. That's part of the reason why, as I mentioned earlier today, these speeches are inescapably laundry lists.
And it's why modern speechwriters have to be something more than rhetorical artisans. The good ones have to know how to guide a speech through an often-harrowing process. If history is any indication, the Obama speechwriting team started on this process months ago and has been fielding a host of policy proposals and other suggestions for weeks now. "The real challenge in working on the State of the Union," former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol, appearing on the same Bipartisan Policy Center panel, recalled this morning, "is that you're not just working with the president, you're working with everybody." That "everybody" in this case includes not only White House staff but Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, you name it. "They may not be able to get the president on the phone in the Oval Office, but they can probably track down the speechwriters," Shesol added. "And so they will find you wherever you are."
He added that "the writing is often the least difficulty piece of it. Writing the little block of text about education, writing the applause lines—these are things you know how to do as speechwriter. The challenge is to try to impose some order on this—to bring order out of chaos."
The final editing of course goes to the president. And especially on a speech like this the denizens of the Oval Office tend to have active red pens (or black markers as is often the case). Shesol recalled that Clinton—wary of complaints that his speeches were too long—would tally the number of words he had edited out at the bottom of each page. Then he'd put scads more words in during the next rehearsal.
When that process ends depends on the president. According to Adam Frankel, a first term Obama speechwriter who was appearing on the same panel, tonight's speech has likely been more or less set for a couple days now. "With President Obama, by this time the speech is just about locked," he said. "If there are tweaks that may be made they're going to be fairly minor at this stage … There's as little last minute tinkering as possible."
In this regard he's like George W. Bush, who hated last minute tweaks. He would rehearse the speech in the days leading up to the big event, speechwriter John McConnell recalled this morning on the same panel, and by the last session he would sternly let his audience of aides know that this would not be an editing session. It was only a practice session—no more changes.
Clinton famously never stopped editing his speeches, right up until delivery, when he would extemporize right on through. Baer said that the "concept of going home the night before the State of the Union" was not one he was familiar with. He also shared that he would slip into the bathroom next to his West Wing basement office in the early morning hours of the big day and vomit from nerves. "You're investing a lot of yourself in the speech," he cracked, "and I was investing something in the men's toilet."
I hope for Cody Keenan's sake it's not a practice he's picked up.